The Higgs government is refusing to rule out imposing amalgamations or other local government structures on communities as it sets the table for major reforms this fall.
Local Government Reform Minister Daniel Allain said Tuesday that anger about forced mergers a quarter-century ago was due to "the element of surprise" and he aimed to avoid that this time.
But he would not exclude the possibility of imposing reforms over the objections of communities, repeating to reporters over and over that there are too many local government entities in the province now.
'The way it looks today has to change'
"I hope that we not use the element of surprise this time," he said. "People in New Brunswick expect local governance reform. That expectation exists compared to 1998.
"We don't want to force anything on anyone. However we know that the way it looks today has to change. We have too many entities and it's really important to reduce the number of entities."
I think if we can find the right governance structure, New Brunswickers will definitely, I hope, move forward on a new local government structure for the next 50 years. - Daniel Allain
Allain made the comments as he launched a green paper on local government reform laying out a range of options to overhaul a system that he says has not kept up with changing times.
The green paper says there are 340 cities, towns, villages, rural communities, regional municipalities and local service districts in the province, compared to just 50 municipal entities in Nova Scotia.
The report says controversial forced amalgamations in Edmundston and Miramichi in the late 1990s "have resulted in strengthened local government and service delivery" and a regional policing model imposed on Greater Moncton has "proven successful."
John Kipping, from the newly formed Union of Unincorporated Areas of New Brunswick, disputed that, saying one academic study of such amalgamations showed the newer, larger municipalities were less responsive to citizens.
"We think that there's a narrative being told here that's a false narrative," said Kipping, who helped form the group to speak for residents of unincorporated local service districts.
The controversy surrounding forced amalgamations in the 1990s made them a political taboo, with successive Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments saying they would not merge municipalities without approval through plebiscites.
Margot Cragg of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick said everyone will have to look for compromises as consultations begin.
"There is no solution that makes everybody 100 per cent happy or any one individual 100 per cent happy," she said.
"If everybody goes into this with good faith, we can come out of this with a solution that serves everybody across the province."
The minister said he had "no preconceived notion" of what reforms will look like. Four working groups will gather feedback and look at different options in four categories of reform.
That will culminate with a white paper this fall in which the government will lay out its decisions on the first major overhaul of local government since the 1960s.
"I think if we can find the right governance structure, New Brunswickers will definitely, I hope, move forward on a new local government structure for the next 50 years," Allain said.
Opposition Liberal MLA and local government critic Keith Chiasson said he agrees "the status quo is not an option" and that 340 municipal entities is "a lot."
But he said the party is concerned that the province will dump the costs of service delivery on municipalities without ensuring they have enough funding and that the public won't be fully consulted.
Green paper includes 4 categories
The four categories laid out in Tuesday's green paper are local government structures, the need for regional collaboration, land use planning and finances.
Options include creating municipal "hubs" by merging larger cities with neighbouring communities, creating rural regional governments or establishing regional local governments that cover the entire province.
There's been increasing pressure for reform as growing cities grapple with new costs, including the provision of services for residents of adjacent municipalities and outlying areas where residents don't necessarily pay any taxes to municipalities to cover those costs.
Some tinkering and tweaks, including the creation of regional service commissions a decade ago to share costs, were meant to resolve such issues but have largely failed to do so.
Property tax shares?
The largest cities have called for the province to give up a share of the property tax revenue it collects, freeing up that money for municipalities to use. That's one option in Tuesday's green paper, though officials wouldn't say how much tax revenue the province could give up.
Allain said that question will be linked to possible changes to which level of government provides certain services. "It's that discussion we're going to have," he said.
Some rural residents, meanwhile, have pushed back at suggestions they become subject to a local government that they believe would lead to higher taxes.
Allain tried to reassure them. "People have nothing to fear because you only get taxed for services you receive," he said. "If they decide, once they have elected representatives, to have the same services, they will not be taxed more than anybody else."
He said several times during his news conference that people who live in local service districts, which are run by the province, deserve to elect their local representatives.
"Our objective is to not have that lack of representation continue," he said.
Kipping's group is calling for elected representation in LSDs but says no other reform should happen until that's in place, so the new elected LSD officials can be part of the discussion.
The UUANB is also calling for the province to fix what it sees as an imbalance in existing structures, including LSDs having less clout on regional service commissions than their population numbers warrant.
Kipping says that's why he questions Allain's claim that any new taxes in rural areas will reflect increased services "That's true in theory but in practise that's not the case," he said.